Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Kindergartners Explore Through Project Learning

The Auburn Early Education Center immerses young children in self-directed projects.
Ken Ellis
Former Executive Producer, video , Edutopia

VIDEO: Five-Year-Olds Pilot Their Own Project Learning

Running Time: 9 min.

"Don't go yet, because there's lots of airplanes and birds covering the sky!" warns a wary air-traffic controller from his cardboard perch above a mockup of a plane loaded with his classmates. But it's only a minor delay for students of the Yellow Pod, a small segment of the 460 kindergartners who attend the Auburn Early Education Center, in Auburn, Alabama. Soon, they will be virtually winging their way to Brazil on a fantasy flight aboard their handcrafted plane, culminating two and a half months of preparation for the role-playing exercise as part of a yearlong study of South America.

At this award-winning kindergarten learning center, shared with a special education preschool, the students decide what projects they want to tackle, and teachers guide them to resources, on the Internet and in books, that help them create something from what they learn. Whether they're building an airplane or a cruise ship, or conducting a funeral for the class praying mantis, AEEC students are learning more than basic facts and skills. They are acquiring a taste for the process of lifelong learning.

"These kids have a very authentic, real purpose for learning," says AEEC principal Lilli Land. "When you want to find something out, what do you do? You go to the computer, you get on the Internet, you get a book. You don't go to an adult and just have them feed you all the information. You have to learn to be a problem solver; you have to learn to be resourceful. So we teach them to be lifelong learners, and you have to keep them excited about the process of learning."

Although the project-based curriculum generates much of the enthusiasm for learning here, a recent infusion of technology -- putting interactive whiteboards in every classroom -- has raised the bar for students and teachers. Touching a giant screen, teacher Sandy Armstrong calls up a wall-size map of South America and points to Brazil. "That is a big place!" shouts a boy kneeling in front of her. And when she starts a video clip of an imposing anaconda, he says, "I'll bet he's gonna slide and slither and try to bite him."

"When they put it in our classroom and I saw everything that it could do just playing with it, and my kids were so excited, I could see what a difference it made in a matter of weeks," says Armstrong. "Even the teachers that have been teaching for twenty-five years that are afraid to jump into technology, they have jumped in with both feet. It's rejuvenated their ideas and their motivation."

As part of the school's literacy focus, a dedicated technology coach gives one-on-one instruction to students, who can manipulate giant letters on the interactive whiteboard. "They have a lot of problems when it comes to m and w," says Armstrong. "When they can flip the m over and it becomes a w, they get it. They'll say, 'Oh, it's standing on its head!' It's so much fun for them to do, and they're actually in charge of it. They have the power and, therefore, it's more pertinent to them."

As standardized-test pressure bears down on even the youngest learners and their teachers, Lilli Land challenges other principals to adopt AEEC's project-based-curriculum approach.

"We're teaching all the required content area, but we're doing it in a way that's more innovative, creative, that's off the path of what most people choose," Land says. "But there are many people who think, 'Well, we have to have the workbooks; our kids have to do drill and practice.' That's just scratching the surface, and it's also turning kids off to learning. And so you have to really be confident and trust in what you know is appropriate and good for young children, and believe that if you're actually involving the children every day in activities that are going to make progress in the academic areas, they're going to be fine on assessment."

Ken Ellis is executive producer of Edutopia video.

Comments (40)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jose M Retamales's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Proyect Based-Learning for the early elementary grades is really a very interesting article. I live in a small city in Chile. In our school we are still preparing our students to solve tests and not to be a life time problem solver. Even though our schools in general are not plenty of technology after reading this article I think and I believe we can use the main ideas for helping our students to develop a good taste for the methacognition of a lifelong learning. All the videaos about the topic are so interesting that I can't help but sharing them with my students as well as my teacher team.

Diane Harris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a first grade teacher and am very excited thinking about the possibilities of PBL in my classroom in the coming school year. This video impressed me for 2 reasons. Workbook pages and fill in the blanks papers are disappearing from some classrooms. In their place, creative ideas, such as journaling, are happening. That's a good thing. Secondly, I can make each project as simple, the funeral for a class pet, to complicated and more long term, the study of Brazil.

Teresa St.Angelo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree! Sounds like learning is fun, all are engaged, topic and subjects are age appropriate and what will be remembered and learned! Would love to implement this into our kindergarten curriculum in New Jersey!

Katie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How did your district consider a smartboard? Do you share yours? What great examples! PBL should be a focus in the younger grades. How fun!

Mary M's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Three cheers for problem based learning! The kids are engaged and they are not just learning about the topic, they are learning valuable life skills on how to solve problems. I would love to implement this in my first grade classroom!

Rebecca Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What an exciting idea! I had heard about Smart Boards but didn't know what they were. The idea of problem based (or is it project based) learning is really motivating to me. I also teach 1st grade, but taught kindergarten last year. I would love to see my students learning through more real world experiences. Kids ages 5-7 love to manipulate things - it engages them and increases their desire for learning - the problem solving aspect is also a huge draw. Hurray for PBL!

Rebecca Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Could you tell me more about the capabilities of SMART boards? I am very interested to know the different ways I can use it in my classroom.


Natalie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too was very impressed with Auburn's approach at PBL. I teach kindergarten and do teach thematically. However, I choose the themes and the direction the lessons will take. This video made me think about the choices that I make and how I can better keep the student's interest in mind. I am amazed at the authentic learning capabilites of Smartboards. I teach in a low income area where technology is not a priority. Our students head for college light years behind other peers their age in terms of technology experience. Does anyone know of grants that are available to districts to improve and implement technology?

Natalie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am so impressed with your comments. I teach thematically and am used to revolving our learning around a topic but PBL is new to me. I am so intrigued. I teach kindergarten and would love to incorporate PBL into my classroom. Do you know of any resources that are available to assist me?

Jorden's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am really impressed by your article. And the most important words for me are those that children are acquiring a taste for the process of lifelong learning. How do you compile your curriculum?

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.